Bones tell park’s Revolution story, and raise questions about protections
By Gwendolyn Craig
On a bitter February day in 2019, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office got a call from a construction crew digging a foundation in Lake George. They had found human bones.
Terry Comeau, the county’s undersheriff, was coroner at the time. He and an investigator drove out to the site where the former Whispering Pines cottage rentals used to stand. What they saw did not look like any modern-day crime scene.
Comeau and his colleagues called David Starbuck, a local archaeologist and professor. Starbuck was in New Hampshire, where he taught at Plymouth State University, but he agreed to come take a look.
When he arrived, the construction site was bustling with people—law enforcement, local officials, journalists. They were there to see the 60-foot-by-60-foot crater with bone fragments sticking out of the dirt.
Starbuck said he thought he was called in to examine a single skeleton. But at the far end of the excavated hole was a row of what appeared to be a dozen grave shafts, sliced through by construction equipment. Centuries-old bones were popping out of the dirt wall.
“It was a burial ground,” Comeau said. “You could tell by the way everything was the same depth. It was uniform.”
Finding human remains was no surprise to Comeau, Starbuck or others who know the history of the region well. Native Americans used Lake George, the Hudson River and Lake Champlain as their highways. So, too, did the thousands of soldiers who fought in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War and even the War of 1812.
Matthew Keagle, curator at Fort Ticonderoga, said Ticonderoga, Fort Edward and Lake George were places of “concentrated human activity at times of great trauma.”
“This is war,” Keagle said. “Not only are you seeing people move across, bringing weapons, equipment, provisions and food, but you see the wounded and the dying coming back and being interred on this land.”
Burials were different then, Starbuck said, and most graves were unmarked.
For developers and preservationists, finding them is a surprising and challenging mix of respecting the past and continuing to build the future these soldiers helped secure. With little legal protections for unmarked graves, local officials and community members are searching for ways to protect the remains, along with any yet to be unearthed.
“There isn’t much on the books to safeguard these things,” said Dan Barusch, director of planning and zoning for the Town of Lake George. “Half of the things that are found are swept under the rug.”
Courtland Street bones
Property owners Danna and Ruben Ellsworth didn’t sweep the Courtland Street bones under the rug, much to the relief of state and local officials. Contractors, however, dug an entire foundation before calling the sheriff.
Charles Vandrei, an archaeologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the skeletons were so beat up that they had to count right tibias to figure out how many people were buried at the site. So far, about 30 have been unearthed.
So who were these people, forgotten on the edge of the Queen of American Lakes?
A handful of buttons showed an important clue. They were marked, “1BP,” Vandrei said, short for the First Pennsylvania Battalion in the Revolutionary War.
“I don’t think we could have found a unit that told us more about what we had than this one,” Vandrei said, of the buttons’ label.
The battalion participated in the late-1775 invasion of Quebec, before the United States was officially born. They were poorly equipped for the journey to Canada, and many did not make it home.
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Buried in his uniform
Buttons with one skeleton showed the young soldier had been buried in his uniform, Vandrei said.
Vandrei suspects the others were victims of disease, possibly smallpox. They were likely buried in their long night shirts. Their uniforms would have been removed and laundered or burned.
The work to recover individuals began in February 2019. It stalled during the particularly cold days, picked back up when the ground thawed, then stalled again with the coronavirus pandemic.
Vandrei and Lisa Anderson, the state’s bioarchaeologist, along with more than 100 volunteers, finished sifting the excavated dirt on Courtland Street in mid-September.
She hopes to examine the bones for evidence of infection or other signs that might tell more about their experience. The bones won’t tell whether they had smallpox, Anderson said, but there was an outbreak at that time.
“They were living under pretty deplorable conditions to start with,” Anderson said.
The DEC said Vandrei and others completed a ground-penetrating radar survey of the area. He, Barusch and others suspect there are more graves unexcavated on the site. Staffers were still processing the scans.
Not the first time
The finds are stark reminders of the bellicose and morbid past hidden and sometimes lost to posterity under village shops, parking lots and restaurants. The same goes for cities like Charleston, Boston and Philadelphia—all major battlefields during the Revolutionary War.
“I don’t think we can fault the past for that,” Keagle said of the economic growth on top of these battlefields and historical sites. “The wars of the late 18th century were fought to allow at least the winners to expand their world and to create peace and prosperity, and peace and prosperity bring development and construction.”
Village bandstand construction turned up cannonballs at one military encampment under Lake George’s Shepherd Park, Mayor Robert Blais said. He recalled at least two other times during his tenure when, just blocks away from Courtland Street, 18th century human remains were found.
Barusch said about a decade ago, the village was putting a water main in and found remains.
The Lake George Battlefield Park, which sits at the southern tip of the village, also has a memorial to four unknown soldiers from 1755. Their remains were accidentally dug up during construction of Route 9 in 1931.
Lyn Karig Hohmann, president of the Lake George Battlefield Park Alliance, said there’s speculation that some bodies are buried under the parking lot of Fort William Henry.
Respect for patriots
Federal law via the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provides rules and protections for Native American remains. There are laws protecting remains found on federal land. It’s up to state and local governments, however, to pass laws governing the protection and handling of other remains or funerary objects. Those vary from state to state.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior partnered with American University’s Washington College of Law to create the State Burial Laws Project. The online database is a collection of state statutes dealing with burials.
The database does not include New York’s laws, however. According to English common law, Vandrei said, a person cannot own another person’s remains. In New York most legislation is focused on protecting traditional, European-style cemeteries, which “gets a little more unclear” with unmarked cemeteries. Anderson said there is no law protecting unmarked burial sites.
The town and village could become a certified local government, a process that involves establishing a historic preservation board. The move would require the town and village to adopt a preservation law, which the board would enforce.
‘Where are they?’
It’s a designation Barusch is hoping the town and village will pursue. He and others are sure more 18th-century remains will be discovered in Lake George. Up to 1,000 people may have died around Lake George in the 1700s, Starbuck said. “Where are they?”
Anderson and other state staff are helping Lake George municipalities map out where other human remains have been discovered.
“They’re all important,” Anderson said, of the human remains uncovered across the state. “And they all deserve to be treated properly.”
Vandrei would also like to know where soldiers are buried in Fort Edward and Ticonderoga.
Fort Edward, in Washington County, is just outside the Adirondack Park. It was the last stop on the Hudson River before Native Americans and soldiers had to pack up their belongings and walk about 10 miles to Lake George. Native Americans called it “The Great Carrying Place.”
Rogers Island is a roughly 50-acre island in the Hudson, used as a British military base throughout the 18th century. It’s perhaps best known as the birthplace of the U.S. Army Rangers. Major Robert Rogers wrote his rules of ranging on the island in 1759.
This is Starbuck’s archaeological haven now. Though he has worked all over the world and up the road at the Lake George Battlefield, Starbuck spends several days a week in the summer and fall carefully unearthing the house of a British officer. Veteran diggers assist him, and before the pandemic he also had help from SUNY Adirondack students.
A tricky site
One prized find this summer was a set of blue glass cufflinks. Past digs have unearthed gold ribbon, porcelain, animal bones, fireplaces, coins, musket balls, broadaxes, outlines of barracks and more. Here is where Starbuck and his colleagues, too, unearthed the first smallpox hospital to be excavated in the United States in 1994.
It’s a tricky site to dig.
“Since it’s a multicomponent site and different armies coming back every summer on and off over 20 years, you never know if you’re looking at different moments in time,” Starbuck said, “or if some of this gets tied in together.”
The island has passed through a number of private landowners over the years, many who knew its historical significance and took advantage by hosting digging events and keeping treasures in their private collections.
Starbuck once found the fingers of a right hand, which he suspected could have been cut off due to infection or frostbite. In the past, Vandrei said, a few sets of human remains were found on the island, as were some isolated graves and one cemetery. But he’s certain there are more.
“The fact is, we just don’t know where the rest of them are,” Vandrei said. “A lot of times, they’re actually not that easy to find.”
They may never be found, especially now that the island is owned by the Village of Fort Edward, with the guiding hand of the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The state has shifted its archaeological focus from digging to keeping things in the ground for future generations to study.
“We think we know what we’re doing, but I don’t know that we do,” Vandrei said. Future archaeologists may have different questions and better technology to learn even more about the past.
The state is more apt to dig on privately owned land or sites where artifacts or remains are in danger of getting destroyed.
That’s the philosophy at the privately owned Fort Ticonderoga, too. The fort, however, is taking a closer look at the role of archaeology and the possibility of stumbling across human remains.
There could be a lot of them.
Keagle’s cursory estimates show that between 1755 and 1781, 40,000 people came through Ticonderoga. That’s probably an undercount, Keagle said, because records didn’t always include soldiers’ wives and children or the merchants that traveled with the troops.
Fort Ticonderoga received an American Battlefield Protection Program grant through the National Park Service to conduct surveys. Margaret Staudter, who had worked at the museum as a registrar in the collections department, has taken on another role as site archaeologist.
With help from the battlefield grant, Fort Ticonderoga and the University of Vermont are using unmanned aircraft to conduct elevation and terrain models on the Carillon Battlefield. Using those and historic maps, the plan is to catalog what’s visible and have a guide for possible future excavations.
With this in mind, the museum is also in the process of creating its first human remains policy, Staudter said.
“It is important because we are a site where there was a lot of loss of life,” Staudter said.
Today, the fort and battlefield are owned by an educational nonprofit organization accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Like Rogers Island, Fort Ticonderoga has passed through the hands of a number of different people and entities. Keagle said it was fortunate, however, that a man named William Ferris Pell purchased the fort 200 years ago.
“He fenced in the area of the old fort so it would not deteriorate further,” Keagle said.
There are no plans to do any major excavations on the battlefield, at least for the near future.
The process of surveying the landscape is slow, but Staudter said that’s what it takes “to make sure we’re doing the necessary work” both for answering historical questions and preserving the past.
From Crown Point, to Ticonderoga, Fort Edward to Lake George and Saratoga, the bones and artifacts keep revealing the region’s rich military history.
“It’s still here in the ground,” Vandrei said. “It’s still here in the landscape.”